This is part one in a series reflecting on FX’s new show American Horror Story. It’s a show about all my favorite things: horror tropes, teen angst, dude-life-crises and densely problematic lady biz. Also, a plenty of abortions!
Spoilers! Mild Trigger Warning for violence and some mentions of rape
American Horror Story is a Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk vehicle that has (surprise!) a whole lotta lady problems, but I’m gonna advocate—as a feminist and a worshiper of television—for its relevance. Feminist Film’s official stance on this show is that you should be watching it, because it is complicated, problematic, and also kind of exciting.
(Disclaimer: it’s also pretty bloody, violent, and deals with abuse and rape, so it might be triggering. The official Feminist Film stance is that you should be watching it unless you don’t want to deal with that. That’s cool too.)
It’s a fairly formulaic made-for-tv haunted house scenario. Dylan McDermott hops coasts after sex-scandal life-crisis in order to start fresh with his wife and teen daughter. They buy a Hollywood mansion cheap, because the housing market is terrible and everyone knows that L.A. Gothic Revival Post-Queen Annes are full of bloody histories. Everyone, of course, except the Harmon family! The expected ensues: ghostie creepouts, cultish murder plots, Middle Aged Man Loses His Mind because Hollywood Mansions are always sentient.
What’s unfolding is a pretty decent conversation with our expectations of the genre. That’s what makes any horror good horror, and that’s why, as a horror fan, I’m interested in this show. But as a feminist pop culture critic, I’m interested in this show because, somehow, all of the horror tropes are uniquely, acutely gendered.
In this series I’m gonna talk about these themes: vengeful murderous sex-bitches, hysterics, the politics of haunted rape, a feminist ghost-separatist inversion of The Shining’s masculinities, and more.
In this first installment, my interest is in the series’ peculiar preoccupation with its characters’ wombs.
American Horror Story’s major conflicts have all been, it seems, conceived in utero. The Harmon family moved to L.A. after Vivien Harmon (played by Connie Britton) walked in on her husband Ben (Dylan McDermott as the middle-aged psychiatrist) “pile-driving” one of his university students in their marital bed. Prior to this trauma (and rage), Vivien had been dealing with the stress of a an unborn child’s violent stillbirth of a child. Ben’s infidelity, he maintains, arose from loneliness. She wasn’t sexy enough after that miscarriage, it seems.
Everyone tries to cope. Vivien gets a dog. The family buys a Californian estate and tries to rebuild their family.
We recognize literary fetuses as analogs for women because we know that you cannot dramatize a pregnancy without allegorizing womanhood. But pregnancy often also symbolizes the physical and figurative connections between men and women. Here, Vivien and Ben’s relationship ruptured in part because of infidelity, but also because they lost that emotional connective tissue that makes married straight couples care about each other, apparently. No more baby. (Evidently, their teen daughter isn’t enough to symbolize their love anymore. Only fetuses will do, I guess.)
Of course, that stillborn (desired) baby becomes a grating emblem of their shaky marriage, the Embryo in the Room, if you will. That is until two new fetuses enter the picture. I’ll discuss them soon, as well as all of the aborted ones. But first, we have to talk genre.
This is, if you recall, a haunted house story. You could argue that the franchise as we know it is uniquely American. It hinges on a few modernist, Western conceits. First, we must understand a unique relationship to place and ownership. In the haunted house genre, the agitated inhabitants have no familial or material connection to the home’s past generations. They are all visitors, guests, or colonizers. The contemporary haunted house is a reaction to the modern reality of generationally-specific habitation: most of us live in houses where generations of strangers lived before us. The Shining, Rose Red, Amityville Horror, The Changeling, The Haunting, The House by the Cemetery, The Others all relate to our discomfort with the unknowing of place history. What is more American than the erasure, misery, and mystery of the people who used to live where we live? Then, of course, a familiar variable in haunted house folklore is the Indian Burial Ground. Haunted houses are all about fear and guilt of occupation. Sam J. Miller even argued for a reading of haunted house fiction in terms of gentrification, and it’s a really convincing point:
The more I thought about this recurrent motif, the more I realized: the modern haunted house film is fundamentally about gentrification. Again and again we see fictional families move into spaces from which others have been violently displaced, and the new arrivals suffer for that violence even if they themselves have done nothing wrong.
This thriving subgenre depends upon the audience believing, on some level, that what “we” have was attained by violence, and the fear that it will be taken by violence. In the process, because mainstream audiences are seen as white, and because gentrification predominantly impacts communities of color, the racial Other becomes literally monstrous.
In American Horror Story, place and ownership are temporary and fragile; fear arises from the knowledge (and lack thereof) of generations of trauma, terror, death and violence which mark the place the Harmon family newly inhabits.
Of course, none of these suppositions could support themselves without a very deep understanding of a connection between place, life, and—here’s where America flies its flag—the material. Haunted houses aren’t just about a spiritual connection to geography. They are more concerned with a spiritual (and psychological) connection to the built.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting on Hill House can be considered if not the conception of the modern haunted house fable, then its christening. In it, she articulates a vision of homes, as material things, as physical embodiments of psycho-spiritual realities.
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
In haunted house fables, the physicality of the house is just as important as the land on which it lies. Not to get all neo-Marxist on y’all, but that is a shared consciousness born of capitalism. In this consciousness, man-made things have crucial bearing on the spiritual world. In our haunted houses, spirits live not only on the land, but in the rooms where they lived and died, in their mirrors and their claw-footed bathtubs. They belong to very spatially specific realities which are mitigated and completely dependent on the physical presence of the house itself. In these realities, we are led to believe that the destruction of that brick and stone and wood would lead to the destruction or liberation of those haunting bodies. There is no haunted house without the house.
Beyond that, then, these houses often become either manifestations of characters’ psyches or personified bodies themselves. As in The Shining, Rose Red, adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House, and American Horror Story, we’re usually left wondering which is the case.
The ghosts of the Harmons’ house, as they’ve been slowly revealing themselves to us, have very spatially specific realities. They are connected to the bathrooms in which they drowned, the clothes in which they were buried, and the rooms in which they were born.
Moira has been the mansion’s maid since the early 1980s, when she was hired and later murdered by the house’s matriarch in the master bedroom. It is through Moira (who is played alternately by Alexandra Breckenridge and Frances Conroy, who you probably know as Six Feet Under's Ruth) that this spatial and material relationship between the house and its ghosts is slowly revealed to us. Buried in the backyard, her body remains in its domestic uniform (black and white eyelet with an apron, naturally), which her ghost wears for an eternity as she tends to the house which has imprisoned her. Her relationship with it is explicitly physical: she respects, understands, and tends to its wood and Tiffany glass. Moira's eternity is a function of that structure.
In the episode “Halloween,” the extent of this physical-spatial entrapment is unveiled. In American Horror Story, Halloween is, of course, a day when the dead can walk freely among the living, so the ghosts imprisoned in the Harmons’ house can venture off the grounds. We see that there is an explicit link between capitalistically-defined material geography and the spiritual world. These ghosts are trapped by real estate, and presumably maintain neighborly respect for imagined property lines. They can only extend their borders on one night of the year.
This psycho-spiritual embodiment becomes especially relevant when you look into the house’s basement, positioned as American Horror Story’s womb: dark, terrifying, a little gross; an incubator of trauma and horror; and, most importantly, full of abortions.
So many abortions.
Our haunted house’s origin story is as follows: East Coast old-monied Nora Montgomery and her doctor husband Charles move to Hollywood in the early 1920s. He becomes Physician to the Stars and builds her a house to all her spoiled New England specs. Their marriage still sucks.
This element is, I would argue, the final important American contribution to the haunted house genre: the house as physical manifestation of domesticity and relationships between men and women. Of course houses are synonymous with the domestic, and practically eternal Western symbols for marriage and the family. It is the task of the haunted house genre, though, to corporealize this relationship. So, traditionally, we see houses begin as a symbol of marital love which becomes an indestructible physical manifestation of infidelity, brutality, and abandonment. In Rose Red, as well as fables of its real-life antecedent, the Winchester Mystery House, these houses become a coping mechanism for women betrayed by men; they channel their trauma into building projects which ultimately become bodies of trauma themselves.
For Nora, the trauma is that she’s spoiled and disappointed in her husband. Dr. Montgomery, after presumably delivering to Rudolph Valentino a handful of prostate exams (okay, well, I’m taking liberties here), becomes a worthless drunk and drug addict who doesn’t love his family (which, according to the show so far, would have been less of a problem if he had continued pulling in some paychecks).
Well, maybe: apparently in the 1920s, drunks commonly developed mad Dr. Moreau complexes like it was no big thang. Dr. Montgomery spent most of his days in their basement, pickling pigs and sewing bats to rats to other rats and promising Nora that he was thiiiiiis close to discovering the secret of life and therefore achieving Science Rockstardom, all don’t worry baby, we’re gonna make it big any day now. Nora got fed up, and decided to capitalize on her husband’s basement biology. She brought the first puppy-eyed blonde starlet into their foyer, doused her in a morphine cocktail and hoisted her into the a pair of stirrups. And so Dr. Montgomery performed the first of dozens of actress abortions in that basement.
A den of aborted embryos.
The legend holds that one of those budding starlets had loose lips. She told her boyfriend about the pregnancy, and its termination, and he got possessive and pissed. In an act of revenge, this boyfriend snatched the Montgomery baby right out of their window, Lindbergh-style. The police later delivered the toddler’s dismembered body to Charles Montgomery in a box.
It’s considered an act of retribution. An eye for an eye, an infant for an embryo. Seems fair, at least to these twenties patriarchs.
From there, Dr. Montgomery went full-on Frankenstein, stitching up his baby’s body, trying to bring something back to life. And it has been alluded to that something, in fact, has been brought to life: something monstrous, inhuman, and violent was implanted into that basement by Dr. Montgomery and has been gestating in that house’s damp, dark womb for decades, unable to leave the only space it had ever known. A dead baby and dozens of aborted fetuses forever incubating in this basement.
This reads like pretty blatantly pro-life propaganda, doesn’t it? Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress says that American Horror Story "seems to suggest that the end of a pregnancy before term, whether by miscarriage, abortion, or murder, is the ultimate expression of evil," and I can’t disagree. But I ask you not to pass judgment until I tell you about the rest of American Horror Story’s abortions. Yep, there’s more.
Well, almost. There are two other fetuses of note. The first is in the uterus of Ben Harmon’s student, the one he had sex with while Vivien was carrying the now-terminated pregnancy, and with whom he continued to sleep even after Vivien’s miscarriage. This woman, Hayden, asks Ben to fly to Boston to accompany her to an abortion (and, I should hope, demand that he pay for it). Now, I’m gonna tackle Hayden’s characterization in future posts about hysterical sluts on American Horror Story. But for now, unfortunately, I’m mostly concerned with her reproductive organs.
Ben lies to Vivien and flies to Boston to sit next to Hayden in a clinic’s waiting room, which is full of inexplicably bloodied, sobbing, not-mothers. Abortion: same in 2010 as in 1920, right? In response to Hayden’s demands, Sophia at abortion gang said, “I guess young women that choose to abort can’t make the choice without a man there by their side, holding their hand through the process.” Hayden is decidedly the most problematic female character on this show, but in her defense (certainly not the writers’ defense), it is made clear that she decided to abort without Ben’s influence. Well, that is, until.
Until Ben flies back to Los Angeles to be with his wife and Hayden shows up a few days later, crazy-eyed and still pregnant. She has decided (or, should I say, the writers have decided for her) to carry this motherfucking baby to term and move to Hollywood to live with Ben forever and ever because they are in love and screenwriters assumed that no American audience would call bullshit on a fucking psychiatric student in Boston throwing everything away for a married man. They expect me to buy it, so I will. For now.
Okay, listen. Hayden is fraught with fucked-upedness, but as a feminist cultural critic sometimes I have to make difficult decisions. I could choose to identify with the sexist writers and accept that Hayden is a crazy, clingy baby-hungry, grubby-fingered bitch. Or, I could choose to illustrate the ways in which the writers are sexist pigs who are doing a disservice to a potentially badass female character and, ultimately, choose to identify with Hayden because this is television and I think she has the potential to be awesome. I choose the latter. Team Hysterical Hayden 2k11.
Hayden’s potential has plenty of time to realize itself, it seems. To make a long story short, Ben indirectly (but not accidentally) smashed Hayden’s face in with a frying pan, buried her (and her unborn cluster of cells) in the backyard on top of Moira, and built a gazebo over her. Since we’ve already discussed the relationship between place and eternity in American Horror Story, I’m sure you can all imagine that Hayden’s gonna be around for a while. And, I’m sure, you can imagine that gazebo is gonna be full of symbolism.
The second fetus is Vivien’s. Again, to hasten the details, let me just say that she was impregnated by a ghost that she thought was Ben in one of the show’s many rapey sequences, and now she’s got a potential demon-infant scenario on her hands. On Halloween, Hysterical Hayden’s ghost, all green-eyed and bloody-faced, tries to cut Vivien’s abdomen open with shards of glass from a smashed family portrait (because symbolism). She does not succeed, which is probably a shame, you know, because of the impending demon-baby.
One living fetus remains, the impression of dozens of dead and unborn fetuses lingers in that house. And those dead fetuses, it seems, will determine the fate of the living human characters. Especially the women. Thus, we’ve been delivered our frameworks for understanding the show from here on out: relationships are determined by figurative connective tissue (literal wombs) and proximal bodies (figurative wombs—basements).
It’s pretty sexist, but it’s also pretty dense and compelling. You should give it a shot.
Stay tuned for part two.
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